02/27/09

Twenty: DRESS T’etzave

Purim, the big dress-up holiday is less than a week away and it’s high tide for last minute costume shopping. (Purim being the annual Jewish holiday strongly resembling and closely associated with Mardi Gras – 24 hours of storytelling, mandatory drinking, masks, cross-dressing and generally turning things upside down as spring begins.)

So I went shopping this week, seeking a dress glamorous, modest, affordable and spacious enough to reflect my changing needs. Hello recession and hello Size 12.

A man buying fabulous ladies’ evening wear in discount stores and vintage boutiques is a no brainer in Manhattan but a bit of a goose chase in Jerusalem. It’s also raising lots of eyebrows, especially in those second hand stores managed by pious orthodox ladies, mostly trading among themselves. Suspiciously, the saleswomen look me up and down– who is that blue sequin dress for? Oh. My Purim pretext does not soften their stance. Even though prominent rabbis, going back to the 15th century, have permitted cross dressing on Purim “for the purpose of fulfilling the duties of the holiday and increase of joy”, most contemporary Orthodox authorities, increasingly  more extreme in many areas, do not encourage too much levity or boundary crossing.
A recent legal ruling by Israel’s former chief rabbi Eliyahu stated that Jews should not even dress as Arabs on Purim ‘for security reasons’.  Purim is celebrated but suspected as too problematic, too fun, just tolerated. The ladies at the store sold me the dress, but didn’t crack a smile. (And now I have to return it – that’s another story.)

But where adults are not allowed to tread – children are still highly encouraged. The kids costume market is doing great  – every street corner has cheap wigs, Dora the Explorer outfits, little Obamas, clowns – and – the best seller on the Ultra Orthodox street – the costume of Aaron, the High Priest.  It’s elaborate, pretty, and  – Biblical, hence kosher. Boys roughly between the ages of 4-9 dig it and the streets of Jerusalem on Purim day are filled of little Aarons in white dresses and shining turbans.  I do remember seeing a little girl wearing it once but I think that’s rare.

Why is Aaron so popular?  Clearly, among biblical and/or Jewish historical figures, Aaron does have the most complex and colorful outfit – made for the runway. But more importantly, I think that on some levels, kids, no matter of what religion or sector, love super-heroes and magic. Aaron, the High Priest, highest ranking Jew within the community – wearing a golden oracle with 12 precious gemstones, tinkling with little pomegranate bells, and wrapped in a silken cape, is the closest we got to Harry Potter.

What it comes to dressing up Jewish style – and not just for Purim – Aaron and the Levites set the tone. In this week’s Torah tale, ‘Tetzave’, the interior design of the Tabernacle is wrapping up, and the design team’s focus shifts to the outfits of the official crew. Every stitch, color scheme and tassel of the priestly wardrobes is accounted for in this chapter of Exodus. Seemingly tedious, these details are about more than meets the eye. The garments of the priests, especially those of the High Priest, are built for comfort and safety during the complicated ongoing maintenance of the highly flammable tabernacle. But, like all uniforms, each item also conveys symbolic meaning.  From sash to shawl – each garment is also a metaphor – a materialization of abstract concepts, embodiments of the layers that make up the eternal soul as clothed within the human body.
As is written in Vogue: It’s all about layers.

Exodus 28:41 sums up this chapter of high fashion for the high priest with God’s instruction to Moses:

“And you will dress Aaron you brother, and his sons with him; You will anoint them, and consecrate them, and sanctify them, and they will minister to Me and officiate as priests.”

The Talmud, when analyzing the symbolic factor of the priestly collection, identifies each object with a human quality, and a specific role. The tunic, for instance, the basic linen dress worn by each priest, reminds Rabbi Dosa in Tractate Yoma of Joseph – and of his Technicolor tunic:  “The tunic of the High Priest atones for the bloody tunic of Joseph” – remembering visibly the sin of the ten brothers who sold their kin for slavery and lied to their father.  Aaron’s coat becomes the carrier of guilt – but also the conduit for remorse and transformation.

No wonder the kids like Aaron the High Priest – he himself is already a masked myth – a dressed up Joseph (whose famous coat, according to legend, was a hand-me-down all the way from Adam – the first one to ever wear a garment.)

Dressing up on Purim is an opportunity to put on a mask so that we can be more of who we really are. ‘Persona’ – Greek for ‘mask’ is how we define ourselves in our ordinary daily lives.  For one day, by dressing up – we get to dress down – reveal our inner selves to our selves, safely, masked…
I know, it’s complicated and psychologically risky and few of us go there for real, for the stake of revelation is high. My experience is that there is a real pay off to becoming something other your usual self for a period of time: great truths unveil. Learning happens. Scholars write about ‘masquerades’ as times when we are reminded of who we are behind our mask, play with our inner super hero, concealed self/selves. It’s about play in its deepest sense – and it’s scary. And so most of us don’t Purim, or do it real drunk (which is part of the idea and really helps) or do our best to tone it down.

That’s fine, folks, but it could be fun, too. C’mon, Dress up…

One more word about cross dressing: why do we use the verb ‘dress’ when describing the act of putting on any clothes at all? Why don’t we say ‘garment’ or ‘shirt’? There is surely a perfectly legitimate reason – but I’m just amused that there is cross dressing hidden in the very daily language of English speaking  males.
Anyway. I still have to find the perfect dress. Stay tuned. If you are in Israel on Shushan Purim Night, March 10th – come see the selection and dance with Hadassah in Jerusalem. Here’s the link:
http://www.maabada.org.il/events.php?id=705

Elsewhere, be fabulous, don’t drink and drive, and raise a glass to transformation, facing East – Hadassah will toast you from Zion: To Life!

And send pictures.